Wednesday, November 25, 2015   

Legco dice loaded from the start

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Have you ever wondered why government makes decisions that seem strange? Its all in the numbers.

The first number concerns amendments to the Basic Law. Without the agreement of two thirds of Legco (40 votes), reforms will fail.

For example, on the 2005 reform bill, 25 pro-democracy legislators blocked the majority supporting it. The reforms would have added five members elected from district councils to Legco and all councillors to the Chief Executive Election Committee. The chief executive couldn't persuade government-friendly parties to abolish the vote of 105 government appointees to district councils, nearly all allies of those parties.

Strangely, democrats objected to being unfairly, uncompetitively and deliberately outnumbered on the councils. So no deal.

Donald Tsang Yam-kuen probably prays daily for the pro-democracy bloc to shrink below 20 so he can get that magic 40 he needs to pass a government-supported version of democratic reforms.

The second number is the one needed to form a majority in Legco - 30. You might suppose the number should be 31, but the president of Legco traditionally doesn't vote. This convention is not a constitutional requirement, so the number could change if a new president decides to break the convention. And with current president Rita Fan Hsu Lai-tai retiring from Legco this year, that could happen.

Democrats try every election to break the magic 30 mark, but the proportional system an
d severely restricted rules on who votes in the functional constituencies limit them to around 25 members. They oppose any reform proposal that unfairly bars democrats from a majority. Government opposes any reform that lets them get it.

The final number unlocks the real mystery of why government makes such strange budget allocations and policy decisions on things such as roads, pollution and regulations.

That final crucial number is 15. It actually shows up twice in the system. Normally legislation passes or fails on a simple majority vote, but if a Legco member or party wants to amend a bill, then Legco divides into two bodies, each of which must return a majority for amendments to pass. The composition of those two subgroups of Legco and this process of double majority voting on amendments form the nub of contention over constitutional reforms. The 30 directly elected members vote separately from the 30 Legco members elected by functional constituencies. In either body, if 15 members vote against an amendment, it fails to get the majority of 16 needed.

So in effect, 15 directly elected members can stymie all 30 functional constituency members plus 15 members from the directly elected side, or 45 out of 60 members of Legco.

And the same goes for 15 functionally elected members. They can kill an amendment supported by all 30 directly elected members and half of the functional constituencies.

Since on average nine or 10 functional constituency members are returned uncontested in every election, only a few thousand functional constituency voters can add the five or six members required to stop legislative changes supported by millions of voters in the geographic constituency.

Of course, all these numbers assume all 60 are present and voting at the time. In practice, majorities vary in number according to members present and voting.

The absence or abstention of members can give surprising results at times, such as the election of Emily Lau Wai- hing as chair of the Finance Committee or the defeat of the government-backed amendments to the food labeling ordinance.

Ever since the proportional election system went into effect in 1998, predicting the results of Hong Kong elections has been easy. Pro-democracy parties always take about a third of Legco seats while pro-government parties and functional constituency pro- business candidates take the rest.

Since pro-democrats always win most directly elected seats, they can stop business forces from amending laws. And since pro-business groups always win 18 of the 30 functional constituency seats because they are the only ones permitted to vote for them, they can return the favor. Checkmate.

As long as government buys 15 functional constituency members' loyalty, it can block amendments to any bills. And so we get nonsensical budget decisions and puzzling allocations.

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